JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - A new-look Super Rugby competition began on Saturday (Feb 17) with two thrillers in South Africa won by home teams Western Stormers and 2016 and 2017 runners-up Golden Lions.
The southern hemisphere franchise championship has been trimmed from 18 teams to 15 to try and halt dwindling crowds and TV audiences and many lopsided matches.
Judged by the many empty seats at Ellis Park in Johannesburg and Newlands in Cape Town, many rugby supporters remain unconvinced that the leaner version will work. But those who stayed away missed out as Stormers held off sustained pressure from the Argentine Jaguares to triumph 28-20 and Lions edged Coastal Sharks 26-19 in another tense tussle.
There was inevitable start-of-season rustiness, noticeably in the handling of the Jaguares and the scrumming of the Sharks, but the uncertainty of the outcomes compensated.
Lions and Springboks skipper and loose forward Warren Whiteley aptly summed up the first round fare when he said: "I was pleased with the result, but not our performance.
"We lacked rhythm. After putting three or four phases together, our moves often collapsed and that is something to work on."
However, the heroic manner in which the Lions repulsed a string of late Sharks surges toward the try-line thrilled the forward back in action after an eight-month injury lay-off.
"The character of the team came through in those dying minutes. We remained calm under intense pressure and that was a real positive."
A key factor for the Lions was their scrum dominance with the Sharks securing possession from only one of six put-ins during the opening half.
Lions were less impressive in the line-outs, though, losing four and 2017 South African Rugby Player of the Year and hooker Malcolm Marx eventually took the safer short-throw route.
Sharks skipper and lock Ruan Botha admitted that being constantly pushed back and off the ball at scrums had a major impact on the result.
"You cannot build attacking momentum when constantly back-pedalling at scrums. Come Monday, we need to investigate what went wrong and fix the problem," he said.
Lions recovered from conceding an early try to lead 14-7 at half-time and the ultimately crucial score came just before the hour when flanker Kwagga Smith rolled over to dot down.
Springbok fly-half Elton Jantjies missed the conversion, and two other makeable shots, but it did not count against him in the end.
Stormers looked set to win easily when new wing Raymond Rhule scored 36 seconds into the second half for a 22-6 lead in 29 deg C heat.
But wing Emiliano Boffelli punished weak tackling to score and a penalty try brought the Buenos Aires outfit within five points 12 minutes from time.
Jaguares lost a scrum close to the tryline, though, and later a knock-on ended a promising move before fly-half Damian Willemse sealed their fate with a penalty.
Stormers and Lions secured four points for winning and Sharks one for losing by less than eight points.
The other 11 teams - five from New Zealand, four from Australia and one from South Africa and Japan - debut next weekend with title-holders Canterbury Crusaders hosting Waikato Chiefs.
Winners of the Australia, New Zealand and South Africa conferences secure quarter-finals places along with the five best-placed teams across the three mini-leagues.